Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 70 of 79

With this testimony to the transcendent merits of Linnæus we conclude the present section, regarding it as a fit introduction to that which follows, in which we shall attempt to sketch the character of this extraordinary man.[Pg 361]


Character of Linnæus.

Specific Character of Linnæus—Remarks of Condorcet—Linnæus's Appearance and bodily Conformation—His Habits, mental Characteristics, Sociality, domestic Relations, Parsimony, and Generosity—His Forbearance towards his Opponents, Inaptitude for the Acquisition of Languages, Love of Fame, moral Conduct, religious Feelings—Character of his Writings—Remarks on his Classifications.

The character of Linnæus, marked as it is by features which the least reflective mind can hardly fail to distinguish as indicative of qualities that seldom present themselves in so high a degree of development, is not difficult to be appreciated.

The method which he employed for characterising the genera and species of animals and plants, he applied to himself as an individual, and the description which he gave of his own person and mind is too remarkable to be omitted here. It is this:—

"Occipite gibbo, ad suturam lambdoideam transverse depresso, pili in infantia nivei, dein fusci, in senio canescentes. Oculi brunnei, vivaces, acutissimi, visu eximio. Frons in senio rugosa. Verruca obliterata in bucca dextra et alia in nasi dextro latere. Dentes debiles, cariosi ab odontalgia hæreditaria in juventute.

"Animus promptus, mobilis ad iram et lætitiam et mærores, cito placabatur; hilaris in juventute,[Pg 362] nec in senio torpidus, in rebus agendis promptissimus; incessu levis, agilis.

"Curas domesticas committebat uxori, ipse naturæ productis unice intentus; incepta opera ad finem perduxit, nec in itinere respexit."

To convert this aphoristic description into elegant English, such as is employed by writers of the Buffon school,—men of many words and few facts,—would be to destroy its peculiar beauty, which can only be retained in an appropriate translation:—

"The head of Linnæus had a remarkable prominence behind, and was transversely depressed at the lambdoid suture. His hair was white in infancy, afterwards brown, in old age grayish. His eyes were hazel, lively, and penetrating; their power of vision exquisite. His forehead was furrowed in old age. He had an obliterated wart on the right cheek, and another on the corresponding side of the nose. His teeth were unsound, and at an early age decayed from hereditary toothach. His mind was quick, easily excited to anger, joy, or sadness; but its affections soon subsided. In youth he was cheerful, in age not torpid, in business most active. He walked with a light step, and was distinguished for agility. The management of his domestic affairs he committed to his wife, and concerned himself solely with the productions of nature. Whatever he began he brought to an end, and on a journey he never looked back."

"Some time before his death," says Condorcet in his Eloge, "Linnæus traced in Latin, on a sheet of paper, his character, his manners, and his external conformation, imitating in this respect several great men. He accuses himself of impatience, of an excessive[Pg 363] vivacity, and even of a little jealousy. In this sketch he has pushed modesty and truth to their utmost; and they who have known that great naturalist, justly charge him with severity towards himself. There are moments when the most virtuous person sees nothing but his own failings. After describing universal nature in all its details, it may be said that the picture would have remained incomplete had he not painted himself. At the same time it is vexing that he should have painted himself in colours so unfavourable. Judging him by his conduct, no one could have fancied the existence of these defects, nor could they have been known unless he had revealed them." Yet, if the damnatory revelation which he made be, as M. Fée asserts, nothing more than the above sketch, it would appear that he has half in playfulness presented a technical character of himself, such as he would have written of a bear or a baboon. It presents indications of candour and self-reproach, but certainly is, on the whole, much more laudatory than otherwise.

With respect to bodily conformation, he was of a stature rather below the ordinary standard, as has been the case with several very ambitious, active, and successful men. His temperament was the sanguineous, with a proportion of the nervous; whence he was lively, excitable, full of hope, and of great ardour; but since he was in no degree melancholic, some physiologists might puzzle themselves to discover where he obtained his indefatigable industry, his perseverance, his obstinate straightforwardness, and the tenacity with which he held all opinions which he had once received. In youth and middle age he was light, but muscular; whence his[Pg 364] personal agility and energy; but as he advanced in years he became rather full, although with little diminution of his corporeal, and still less of his mental activity. In walking he stooped a little, having contracted that habit from his constant search for plants and other objects. He was moderate in his diet, regulated his mode of living by strict method, and by temperance preserved his energies, that he might devote them to the cultivation of his favourite sciences. His hours of sleep were in summer from ten to five, in winter from nine to six.

Punctual and orderly in all his arrangements, he underwent labours which to most men would have been impracticable. Yet the period of study he always limited by the natural flow of his spirits, and whenever he became fatigued, or felt indisposed for labour, he laid aside his task. Some persons have accounted for the immense extent of his works by simply allowing him industry and perseverance; but they who think so are not aware, that these qualities are generally inseparable from genius of the highest order.

In the evenings he frequently indulged in social intercourse with his friends, when he gave free vent to his lively humour; never for a moment enveloping himself in that reserve with which men of little minds conceal their real want of dignity. Whether delivering a solemn oration at the university, or familiarly conversing with the learned, or dancing in a barn with his pupils, he was respected and esteemed alike.

It is perhaps strange that, although of this joyous temperament, he had not a musical ear, having been in this respect like a man whose character was in almost every point very different, but not less truly estimable,—that great master of moral wisdom, Dr[Pg 365] Johnson. It would even seem that he had a kind of antipathy to certain combinations of harmonious sound, although it is clear that he enjoyed the lively song of the thrush and skylark, which he mentions in his Lapland journey as affording him delight.

With respect to his domestic relations, it is agreed by his biographers that he manifested a very amiable character. He was a faithful and tender husband, although his consort possessed few estimable qualities; a fond and indulgent father, although his children obtained a much smaller share of his solicitude than his garden and museum. His wife, who, as we have seen, took charge of all his domestic arrangements, is described as having been of a masculine appearance, selfish, domineering, and destitute of accomplishments. Unable to hold any share in rational conversation, she had little desire to encourage it in others; and as her parsimony was still greater than her husband's, we may suppose that her mode of management was not very conducive to the comfort of her guests. As a mother being incapable of estimating the advantages of proper training, her daughters were in a great measure left destitute of the polite acquirements becoming their station in society; and the father being, as he says, "naturæ productis unice intentus," did not trouble himself about uninteresting affairs of this nature. The result, so far as regards his son, we shall see in a subsequent section.

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